Right brain, left brain, hare-brain. Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks tries and fails to unite language, thought and religion.

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I have found it difficult to know where to begin with Jonathan Sack’s extraordinary mangling of linguistics on Start the Week (BBC Radio Four, October 17th 2011) available here –   http://tinyurl.com/6xkv25f  –at least for a while, then maybe you will need to search the BBC archives. The Rabbi has written a book, The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning, and was on the national airwaves to promote it. He began with what inspired him to take on this subject. His ‘moment of discovery’ came, he says, when he realised that all languages that do not include symbols for vowels in their alphabets, (such as Hebrew) take a right to left path across the page. Languages written in an alphabet that does include symbols for vowels (such as Greek) go from left to right.

This, he says, is evidence of a fundamental difference: there are right-brained languages (Hebrew) and left-brained ones (Greek and all other European languages). Sacks claims that the Chinese, who write from top to bottom have ‘triangulated this difference’, ignoring thereby the rather obvious fact that Chinese script is not alphabetic, so has symbols for neither vowels nor consonants.

Anyway, the leap from writing orientation to neurological architecture is rather astonishing. Even a cursory peek into a book about language and the brain will show, on incontrovertible evidence from stroke patients, that the grammar and vocabulary of any language you care to name are the province of the left hemisphere, while the ability to understand intonation and figurative meanings is the province of the right. Any normal language user of any language needs both sides of his or her brain to process it. When either side is damaged, the consequence is a profound language disability. Surely the Rabbi knows Psalm 137 vv 5-6 which describes the effect of a left hemisphere stroke simultaneously destroying language and the use of the right hand:

If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
   may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth
   if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
   my highest joy.

There can be no doubt that the way a language is written, left to right, or right to left, or  (my favourite) boustrophedonically, tracing the line from one side of the page and then back again in the other direction, has nothing to do with the intrinsic nature of its structure, or where it is stored in the brain. It has everything to do with whom the first scribes were copying when they borrowed and adapted an existing writing system for their own language. And whether you write symbols for vowels or not depends on whether your language is easy to decipher without them: nglsh s nt, Hbrw mst hv bn. And let us not forget, as Sacks apparently has, that if a language has any intrinsic quality this will also be discernible in its spoken form. There are most definitely vowels in Hebrew, as in every other language on the planet.

But Sacks’ argument appears to take writing as the only medium in which a language operates. He says that Hebrew is a right-brained language, ‘because to understand the meaning of the word you have to understand the total context in which it occurs’. I think this means that, because there are no written symbols for any vowel sound, to know which word you are looking at in a Hebrew text you need the context to be sure of it. And this may well be the case, but there is nothing right-brained about that. A Hebrew speaker could still read even after a total right-hemispherectomy because vocabulary and grammar are safe inside his left brain. And anyway, to know the precise meaning of any word in any language, it’s normal to refer to its full context. That’s how language processing generally works.

Greek’, says the Rabbi, ‘was the first language to be written left to right, which activates the left brain which allows you to understand word by word what each word means.’ So he actually believes that the direction of your eyes determines the side of your brain that will process information. He also appears to believe that before people could write, they could not reason. Where could such anatomically, neurologically, linguistically and historically ignorant ideas have sprung from?

A clue comes in Sacks’ next excited assertion:

‘It’s fascinating that almost exactly the same moment as this left-brain alphabet appears —fifth, sixth century before the Christian era — so does the left-brained thinking, namely the philosophy and the science of the pre-Socratics….. and you get Greek developing this very analytical atomistic way of thinking which is very similar to Richard’s (Dawkins), culminating in Epicurus who believes in only material realities and testable entities. The trouble is, that didn’t last very long, whereas the Jewish people and the Hebrew religious values which it gave rise to have lasted now for four thousand years.’

Maybe that’s it. Sacks has signed up to the notion that the two sides of the brain think in profoundly different ways: the logical, precise, rational left brain, and the creative, emotional, intuitive right brain. It’s a short step from that to seeing the left brain as cold and uncaring, and the right brain as creative and artistic.  (A casual Google search will bring you tons of that.) It’s an even shorter step to labelling some people as right-brained thinkers (he loves painting) and others as left-brained thinkers (she loves crossword puzzles). But only Rabbi Sacks has made the step to dividing human languages into the coldly scientific and ultimately nihilistic versus the warmly imaginative and eternal, all on the basis of the direction of their writing and whether or not they have symbols for vowels.

Even being generous, this is an example of extremely poor reasoning, and as the Rabbi is using English to do it in the essential ‘left-brained nature’ of the language must be letting him down. But his real failure here is caused by running away with an idea without thinking it through or availing himself of evidence. The left-brain/right-brain distinction is pretty much a myth, as laid out in a measured article from 2000 by John McCrone in the New Scientist. After reviewing the research into information processing by the two halves of the brain, McCrone says, ‘….the distinction between the two hemispheres (is) a subtle one of processing style, with every mental faculty shared across the brain, and each side contributing in a complementary, not exclusive, fashion.’  So it’s just not possible to be a right-brained or a left-brained thinker without first having half of your brain removed. (You can read the full text of McCrone’s article here: http://www.rense.com/general2/rb.htm )

Meanwhile Sacks is enthusiastically pursuing his simplistic misconceptions through the ages to characterise the whole of Western Civilisation up to the Enlightenment as underpinned by a right-brained religion clothed in a left-brained language.

‘And what made Europe happen, and made it so creative is that Christianity was a right-brained religion– its founder was a Jew living in Israel,– translated into a left-brained language, because all the early Christian texts are in Greek. So for many centuries you had this view that science and religion are essentially part of the same thing, the same way of thinking’.

Apparently, the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century broke up this happy partnership and instituted left-brained thinking (cold, logical, scientific) as predominant, while religious belief lost ground as a result. Sacks warns us that Ancient Greek society ultimately burnt itself out because it did not have anything to believe in. And that is what bothers him about Western Civilisation today: we are in our reductive left brain too much, and it’s time to give space to the right brain and its sense of the mystical.

If we allow that Sacks’ left-brain/right-brain argument is actually a metaphor for objective and subjective modes of understanding the world, then we might say that there is some mileage in that. But he has not made his argument in this way. He has built it upon a dismal misrepresentation of linguistics and cognitive psychology. And so far, he has got away with it. None of the other people in the BBC studio (including Richard Dawkins) challenged him on the left-brain/right-brain categorisation of thought, language and religion, and none of the book reviews I have read so far has noted anything flimsy in this frankly ridiculous premise.

But cheer yourselves up with this clip from a TV documentary, fronted by the wonderful Alan Alda, on the observable effects of severing the physical connection between the right and left sides of the brain. Empirical, logical, and absolutely fascinating.

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20 thoughts on “Right brain, left brain, hare-brain. Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks tries and fails to unite language, thought and religion.

  1. I think the left brain – right brain idea is second only to Schrödinger’s Cat as a sciency thing that can be abused to bolster whatever you believe.This is a frankly dodgy theory that seems to say that the edge a society’s books are bound on is critical to its citizens’ creative *or* ("and" seems to be missing) rational mindset and that only sounds plausible if everyone sort of thinks that using the right side of your head makes you more creative.

  2. I wonder if Jonathan Sack ever learns about boustrophedon. It could blow his mind.Yiddish, the everyday language of European Jews, was written in the Hebrew script, but with vowels represented – I wonder how this fits into the whole scheme. And just for the sake of completeness: Avestan was another case of an alphabetic script with vowels, written right-to-left.

  3. I should clarifiy that Rabbi Sacks’ has a long tradition of taking away a moral lesson from some aspect of life without a literal interpretation being required. This was expressed in its earliest form in the Medrash, and more recentlly in the writings of the Chasidic Jews of Polish.The more (presumably left brained!) Lithuanian traditions have a tradition of being more literal in their interpretations, and are quite dismissive of "Chassidisher vortelech" – Chassdic ideas which do not follow directly from core texts.Ncdntlly, I cn rd nglsh wtht vowels with little effort – perhaps a result of reading Hebrew…? I don’t think its an attribute of the language particularly. In fact it may be easier in English – in Hebrew two of the twenty two letters indicate a vowel sound, so one is left with an (insert vowel here). [The remaining twenty letters can be compounded with any vowel (V + a = va)]Filip, Yidish is often written with vowels to make life easier for those to whom Hebrew is a more familiar language. Native Yiddish writers, especially handwritten, write without vowels.Finally, I would point out that brain function is probably not well understood enough at this point to make the assertion that Sacks is literally wrong. Seventy years ago we were scoffing religious thinkers who thought the universe had a beginning….!

  4. Yes, but brain function certainly is well enough understood at this point to say that Sacks is literally wrong. And this is not an assertion, nor an opinion, nor a belief. It’s a fact. On the basis of overwhelming and incontravertible evidence from multiple sources in neurology and psychology, there really is no such distinction as right brain/ left brain in language, no such thing as stimulating the right brain by reading from the right to left, and no such thing as transcription conventions having anything to do with the nature of thought

  5. Anyone who breaks out the neuroscience to plug their book loses the right to hide behind "not requiring a literal interpretation."

  6. Filip S. wonders if Jonathan Sack ever learns about "boustrophedon". Read his book – on p.43 he gives the meaning "as an ox ploughs".

  7. "So for many centuries you had this view that science and religion are essentially part of the same thing, the same way of thinking." And for those same centuries, science made no progress at all.

  8. I read the book and somebody on amazon web site did allude to what you mentioned above.Would like to mention that the ancient Egyptians wrote from right to left, left to right and from top to bottom.Your comments are very valuable.

  9. "And anyway, to know the precise meaning of any word in any language, it’s normal to refer to its full context. " Yes, for example to be able to tell whether "Sacks" refers to a rabbi or things containing balls…

  10. "In fact it may be easier in English – in Hebrew two of the twenty two letters indicate a vowel sound, so one is left with an (insert vowel here)." But wouldn’t that make Hebrew easier to read than disemvoweled English, if there are cues to where the vowels are placed? Whereas a vowel-less English, at least without such cues, would be pretty ambiguous. The string bt could be bat, bet, bit, bot, but, bait, beat, beet, boot, bout, bite, abet… Still easier than a disemvoweled version of Hawaiian, though.

  11. Dear chinaenglishThanks for the encouragement. I must carve out some time to get back to this blog which I have neglected for months on end. My day job has weighed heavily upon me recently.Thanks also for the tip about Murray’s blog. I had not known about it.

  12. Broca’s area http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Broca%27s_area is on the left of the brain. And without it we can’t speak. You may be a PhD in Applied Linguistics. I’m an accountant. I don’t think either of us are in a position to state "brain function certainly is well enough understood at this point to say that Sacks is literally wrong."

  13. Dear Philo Unfortunately, you have not understood Sack’s contention about language, nor the wikipedia article about Broca’s area. Sacks maintains that languages are of two types, right- and left- brained, and that this can be determined by the direction in which they are written. He also says that right- and left-brained languages give rise to different kinds of thought. He offers no evidence for this whatsoever.The wikipedia article makes clear that all grammatical and lexical processing takes place on the left side of the brain in Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas. This has been determined by over a hundred years of research evidence, and is shown every time a person has a left-hemisphere stroke and loses language ability.It does not take a PhD nor an accountancy qualification to see that the power of speech and writing is the province of the left side of the brain, and that Sacks’ speculations run counter to incontravertible evidence. If a person who speaks Hebrew develops Broca’s aphasia, he will not be able to string together a sentence because he will not have access to his vocabulary. Sacks cannot claim that Hebrew is safe in his right brain. It is not

  14. Love your website! I do a similar thing but mostly focusing on Applied linguistics. If you get the chance check it out!I really like what you’re writing about.

  15. Related to this, and probably of interest to you, would be "The Alphabet Versus the Goddess" by Leonard Shlain. As a surgeon he approached it from the other end, as it were.

    • They are called ‘consonantal vowels’ In ancient written Hebrew, there were no letters that represented vowel sounds. There were of course vowels in the spoken language but these were not represented in writing.

  16. I’m pleased that I seen this website, precisely the proper information that I was trying to find! eeceddeeagdd

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